Life A User’s Manual

Six words. I love this book so much. When I wrote my first thoughts on it, I had read only the first part of six and only 89 pages of 568. I had thought that those initial stories were the beginnings of character development and possibly a larger story. (I know, I plunge into a book without ever reading the description at the back until I’ve finished the whole thing. I like to be surprised and to follow the path the author intended for the reader, rather than go into it prepared.)

What thrilled me at first was the prospect of learning where Perec was going, or if he really was going anywhere. Then as chapters flew by, I realized the book wasn’t deepening but expanding. Like a tree shooting twigs out from its trunk. Some long, some short, others growing out of other branches. Some more interestingly-shaped, curiouser, than others. This book is a treasure trove of stories! Revenge, mystery, adventure! I was reminded of One Thousand and One Nights. One of my favourite stories, for example, was of a certain Carel van Loorens, a man on a mission for Napoleon I who abandons his duty to save the daughter of a Prussian count from being held prisoner in Algiers as the sixteenth wife of the most famous of the Barbary corsairs.

But I digress. While the book expands through the stories it tells, it is, in fact, suspended in one moment in time. Each room caught as a snapshot all at the exact same time. The stories, instead, spring out of things. They are that which are contained in the objects within these rooms. The paintings/illustrations/photographs on the wall. Books being read, or lying about. Articles of clothing, jewelry, furniture, chinaware, food, lamps, letters, quilts, rugs, mirrors, boxes, and all kinds of imaginable odds and ends. Typical, everyday things. The histories these things carry. Who used to own them, where they came from, what significance they bore in the past.

It’s ironic to say Life A User’s Manual is a celebration of life because most of the lives these people living in the building at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier have are sad, to say the least. But life is what it is. Crazy, tragic, funny, often futile. What do all these comings and goings, the eating, drinking, making merry, marrying, separating, having children, not having children, loving, being loved, avenging, boasting, hiding, saving, leaving, keeping, all amount to?

Georges Perec has done a magnificent job with this novel. Anyone up for reading his book without the letter e, A Void?

I chose Jean Dubuffet’s painting above, La Vie de Famille (1936), because it looks like a jigsaw puzzle, and because I love Dubuffet and he is mentioned in the book. Maybe even more than literature, references to art abound in it.

There are so many other things I want to touch on, because, really, this book is so rich and so complex. Thankfully, some of the other bloggers I’m reading along with have saved me the trouble:

Richard Emily Frances Sarah EL Fay Isabella Bellezza Julia Stu

Life A User’s Manual by Georges Perec was translated from the French by David Bellos.

29 thoughts on “Life A User’s Manual

  1. Hmmm. I liked reading this book but I’m not sure if I liked it. I agree with everything you said but the fact that I don’t quite understand what Perec was trying to do with this book kind of bugs me. Does that make any sense at all? I’m confusted.

    That painting totally sums it up. A big sprawling mess that’s somehow cohesive.

    • I believe (but then I could be wrong) he was trying to give us a picture of life in that one fragile moment. A fragment of each of the characters’ life frozen for inspection. Each particular thing caught up in that moment a representation of his/her life.

      A big sprawling mess, yes, but so is life, isn’t it?

  2. I love that story about Carel van Loorens. And I love the fact that it’s a kid in a stairwell reading it in some Tintin journal. The journal is real, by the way; I imagine the story is too, and retold here. (Going to finish reading now.)

    • How awesome if his story was indeed real! He spoke over 12 languages fluently! It’s the kind of stuff fairy tales are made of.. especially the Prussian girl’s fate in the end.

  3. Loved, loved, loved your thoughts on this, claire! You’ve really made me curious about it, and I really connected with the paragraph in which you talk about how the book is a celebration of love even though it is not always happy. I think the best tribute to life is one that captures its essence truthfully.

  4. Typical, everyday things. The histories these things carry.

    Love this. And I now feel kind of badly for not connecting more completely with all those myriad THINGS Perec gives us throughout the book. I did, however, love the way that individual objects open out into stories, and stories contract back into objects. And I loved Perec’s exuberance, and the way, as you so rightly say, that these stories manage to be celebratory even when they are tragic. What a beautiful post, Claire! I love reading along with you. :-)

    • Precisely why we all want to read this again sometime! So MANY things. Literally. It was such an interesting way to build his characters. Through physical objects. I’ve seen it done in little doses, but not in this gargantuan a scale, and never completely and exclusively.

      (And you know I love love love reading along with you. You open things up and give them clarity.)

  5. Claire, loved your image of the story branching out like limbs on a tree! And your “revenge, mystery, adventure!” enthusiasm. Did you care for the ending as much as the earlier stories, though? I was blown away by it myself, in particular for how Perec emphasized the essential sadness of things in a novel-canvas otherwise so full of life and vitality (despite the tragedies that your rightfully point out are also there). In other words, I’d be happy to read A Void with you some day, my friend!

    • Richard, I too was blown away by the ending! I felt it was a whirlpool sucking the entire book, where everything converged. Looved it. And you said it perfectly: “the essential sadness.”

      I’ll leave you to set a schedule for A Void! :D

  6. Love your thoughts. I’ve been trailing your discussions, and I’ve grown to want this book so much. Last night, I had a book buying binge, and I was on the look-out for Perec. Of course I didn’t find him here. GAHK.

    Anyway, haha. Your praise is so effusive and yet so heartfelt at the same time. And “those typical, everyday things”–I already have the impression that this is such a fascinating book. [And so now I wait until someone decides to stock it here in these shores.]

    • Sasha, have you tried ordering from Powerbooks? They might, you know. If not, email me. :D

      I think you will really like this. And maybe you can share it with your friend Kael. (The Phils was mentioned a total of five times, one of which figured a longer story.)

      • There’s a bookstore chain called Fully Booked, and they usually stock books that National don’t carry. I thought I’d find it there. Nope. FB and Powerbooks charge shipping. Ack.

        I’ll find a way, though. I will. Hah.

        The mention-of-the-Philippines thing is something that I’ve grown fond of. I mean, we’re rarely cited. And plus points if it’s favorable. Haha, it’s patriotic bias, I suppose? :)

        • Precisely because we ARE rarely cited, and all we ever read are books about people and places not our own, that it’s exciting to find these bits. I was especially elated when I found a few in Moby-Dick. I mean, man, Melville!

  7. i m 200 pages in to this and loving it too ,could see it being the starting point to a huge amount of other books ,perec’s attention to detail is amazing ,there is a tendency to via into listing at times but still a great book ,all the best stu

    • Winstonsdad, I’m with you on that. So much added to the list of books to read. I did love the lists, though, they were so much fun. Looking forward to your thoughts when you’re done..

  8. Oh, I’d forgotten about the little boy reading Tintin! In the 1978-1982 period, when we lived in England, my kids read all the Tintin books (in English, of course).

    Yes, the way Perec’s stories spring out of THINGS; maybe it’s my age, but I often look around at the things in my house and remember their histories, or if they’re photos, think about the events they commemorate. And did you notice something else? An awful lot of chapters – or stories within chapters – seemed to end with descriptions of objects of art. I thought at one point that I would list these, but I didn’t; there was too much else going on.

    I’d be interested in reading A Void, but first I think I might tackle Queneau’s Exercises in Style. I’m definitely not finished with the Oulipeans! Have you read Calvino’s – oh, shoot! the title’s escaped me! – something like “when in the night a stranger”?

    Thanks for your enjoyable post, Claire.

    • Julia, I wanted to keep track of the art, too, but, like you said, there was too much else going on. And also, there were too many it would be exhausting to note down.

      Did you mean ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler’? Yes, it’s a crazy book. I loved it! The Oulipeans rock!

  9. I love your use of that Dubuffet to illustrate the book – from the reviews, it seems like the perfect choice.

    I would be most interested in finding out how the book without the letter e manages in translation.

  10. Wonderful post Claire! I too love the image of the book as a tree – the Tree of Life perhaps, :) – and like Julia the book caused me to look around myself and muse on the history and worth of the objects that surround me. Definitely count me in for A Void, and I’ll be branching out myself into the worlds of Calvino and others soon.

    • And not only the histories of the objects but, more importantly, what they mean to those presently using/keeping them and what these things say about them. Then again, obsessing about these things could turn to hoarding, lol! Seriously, though, I love old things. My mom used to own an antique shop and she was crazy about these things. I seem to have inherited some of it.

  11. Your second post made me more interested in the book than the first! Maybe I’ll go to library and have a peek into the book today ;)

    ps: There were times when I played sudoku and tetris extensively, but I don’t think I’m ever addicted to them (haven’t touched them for a while too).

  12. Pingback: Open Letter Book Buying Binge « what we have here is a failure to communicate

  13. ::cringes slightly:: I do have a copy of A Void sitting around here, taunting me. I’ve really enjoyed reading your responses to this one, but it would take an ambitious reading mood for me to sign up for a solid dose of Perec, and it’s heading for summer here…

  14. Pingback: Life A User’s Manual by Georges Perec | Dolce Bellezza

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